The Druid's Garden

Spiritual Journeys in Tending the Land, Permaculture, Wildcrafting, and Regenerative Living

Introduction to Wildcrafting and Foraging, Part I: Equipment, Resources, What to Learn, and Timing January 18, 2015

I’ve been spending a lot of time talking about various wild foods and other kinds of wildcrafting and foraging on this blog, and I wanted to talk today about the principles of wildcrafting and ethical foraging more broadly. This post is the first in a series of two that focuses on introducing the reader to how to effectively wildcraft/forage, and is built upon my extensive experiences foraging and wildcrafting, which I have been doing in some form since childhood, but which I took up quite seriously about 7 years ago. This post offers definitions, supply lists, resources, what and how to learn, and information on timing. My second post in this series will discuss locations, avoiding environmental pollutants, and ethics.

 

Deep in the blueberry bog--an abundant harvest!

Deep in the blueberry bog–an abundant harvest!

Defining Wildcrafting and Foraging

Defining Wildcrafting: Wildcrafting is a modern term for an ancient practice. For as long as humanity has existed, we have gathered from the natural world for our food, shelter, medicine, clothing, ritual items, arts, and much more. Wildcrafting today refers to gathering materials from the land that you will use for various purposes, most frequently food or medicine, crafts, household items, natural building, carpentry, ritual items, clothing, and more. I often see the term associated with medicinal herbs, but there are many other possibilities for the wildcrafter. Non-food uses of wildcrafted items that I’ve covered in this blog include wildcrafted medicines such as jewelweed salve or various medicinal tinctures, smudge sticks, inks, baskets, and incense.

 

Defining Foraging: Foraging is a type of wildcrafting that is specific to finding food: wild food foragers hunt for food throughout the year (and I’ve covered many of my favorite foods one can forage for: burdock, black raspberries, violets, rampschicken of the woods mushrooms, and autumn olives, to name a few).

 

Other associated terms you might hear are bushcraft (a term for a variety of wilderness skills, such as shelter building, trapping, or fire making) and woodcraft (another term for skills associated with the woods).

 

Why Wildcrafting/Foraging?

Abundant harvest of black raspberry--one of my very favorites!

Abundant harvest of black raspberry–one of my very favorites!

This is a good question, and one that I get asked more often than one might expect.  For me, wildcrafting and foraging have numerous benefits, many of which are not material. First, as a druid, I enjoy spending time in nature, in stillness, in focus, and simply enjoying the natural world around me.  Wildcrafting gives me a good reason to get myself into the forest and the fields as often as I can. Second, I’ve been talking a lot on this blog lately about reskilling; developing the skills necessary to transition to a sustainable and earth-centered future. Learning once again to live off of the land, to live in harmony with the land, and to take only what is necessary is an important part of that path. This is what our ancestors did–and this is what we will again do–if we can learn to do it correctly and in balance. Third, I really enjoy the tangible benefits–the medicine, the food, the various craft items. I have tasted more new things and have been able to heal myself right from the land around me–these are empowering things.

 

Knowledge is critical to this path.  Not only knowledge of what you can take and use, but also knowledge of how that taking impacts the ecocystem.  And ethical forager is a knowledgeable one, connected to the land, and knowing their impacts.  So throughout these two posts, I’m really going to stress that you need knowledge to do this effectively.

 

Wildcrafting Supplies

Compiling some basic supplies will allow you to make numerous successful excursions.  Over the years, I’ve compiled the following supplies, which are useful and necessary:

 

Foraging Bookbag. When I got out foraging, I have a special “foraging” bookbag that I take with me with some basic supplies that are useful for finding food, medicine, and other kinds of things. The bag was one I purchased at a yardsale for 50 cents; it needed some minor repairs but works great.

Various storage - canvas bags, plastic bags, lemon and orange bags (breathable)

Various storage – canvas bags, plastic bags, lemon and orange bags (breathable)

  • Essentials that are always in the bag include sunscreen, an essential-oil based bug spray, fire starting equipment, an energy bar, a can of pepper spray, a hat that easily folds up, a compass, fire-starting equipment, and basic first-aid supplies. I also bring water; usually I don’t bring much in the way of snacks because I can always find a few trailside nibbles (that is, unless I will be out for some time and then I will bring some other stuff).
  • Tools: The Hori Hori.  If you are only going to have one foraging tool-this should be it.  Its a Japanese gardening tool that has a serrated edge, a sharp edge, and can dig and cut.  I won’t leave the house without it! I purchased mine for $30 and its one of the best purchases I’ve ever made.
  • Other Tools in the bag include a small hand saw that folds up to about 7″ in length; my hori hori of course, a pair of scissors, a smaller knife, and a pair of gloves. These are all fairly light. If I’m going out for roots or tubers (like cattail, ground nut, or burdock), I might take a long a little fold-up shovel or even a garden fork if I’m not going far, but those are quite heavy, and I add these only when I need them. The knives are for cutting various plant matter or mushrooms; the hori hori can be used for cutting and also be used for digging roots or limited sawing. The hand saw is for getting branches or barks (useful to cut up roots from a fallen sassafras tree, for example). The scissors are good for harvesting smaller plants or greens, such as yarrow or nettle. I usually use the gloves for harvesting stinging nettles, which I take every opportunity to get when I go out in the summer.
  • Storage. The foraging bag also holds many different kinds of smaller bags for bringing things home–a few larger canvas bags for nuts or mushrooms, a few mesh orange/lemon bags (particularly good for mushrooms because it allows them to breathe), plastic bags of various sizes that I re-use, and paper bags of various sizes. I keep all of these materials in the bag and then when I want to go out (usually at least twice a week in the summer).
  • Blickeys. If I’m going berry picking specifically, I may also bring a blickey or two (see photo), which can be created from a gallon plastic jug. You just cut part of the top off of the jug, so you can easy place things in.  You leave the handle intact, which can go around your belt.  They are super lightweight and free to make.  If you don’t drink anything that would have them, a quick trip down your road on recycling day is sure to procure an abundant supply.  Because I have a friend with a severe dairy allergy that I often share wild-harvested treats with, I only use ones that had water or apple cider (like the one pictured), not milk. So keep that in mind when making your blickey.

    The blickey--fantastic for gathering nuts, berries, or flowers, repurposed and recycled

    The blickey–fantastic for gathering nuts, berries, or flowers, repurposed and recycled

Clothing for Foraging. I also always make sure I am wearing long pants and a belt; sometimes I will also include a hat for the sun and my muck boots if I am going into swampy areas.  Long pants are a great idea year round–in the summer they can protect you from poison ivy (even the most experienced wildcrafter sometimes wanders into a patch unawares–like the time I was enthusiastically harvesting St. johns wort and realized that underneath the top layer of plants, there was a lower layer of poison ivy–thank goodness for the jeans and muck boots!)  For shoes I will wear hiking boots or the muck boots (the muck boots are really hot in the summer).  The belt can hold a blickey or my hori hori or both.

 

Company for Foraging. I have found that foraging is much more fun with a friend than by one’s self. If I mention to some people that I’m heading out for a few hours, I almost always can find someone who wants to come with me and see what’s out there.

 

Other Resources. I usually take one or two field guides with me (see the next section for ideas), depending on what I’m going for. Since I’m still learning mushrooms, in the last two years, I was usually carrying a compact mushroom guide and one or two other books, depending on the time of year and what I’m looking for. I often bring more books and leave them in the car, such as Matthew Wood’s Earthwise Herbals.  Field guides are particularly useful for plant ID.  What’s Doing the Blooming has traveled with me far and wide.

 

Resources/Books for Wildcrafting

These are resources specific to the Midwest and Northeast Regions–if you are in another region, I’m sure there are other good guides for you to find (and a local forager friend could be of help here!)

 

Just a few of the books that help build wildcrafting and foraging knowledge!

Just a few of the books that help build wildcrafting and foraging knowledge!

Understanding Ecology. John Eastman has written a really good series of books on the place of many plants and trees in the ecosystem; and I highly recommend these works to anyone who wants to learn how to forage ethically and responsibly.  Why? Because if we are going to take, we need to understand what we are taking and how what we take fits into the ecological system–what insects or animals depend on the plant, what other plants are typically found in the area, and so on.  This is knowledge that our human ancestors intimately knew, and if we are going to engage in these kinds of activities, we too must understand it, first and foremost. The three books I’ve read from cover to cover that provide this information are: The Book of Forest and Thicket, The Book of Swamp and Bog, and the Book of Field and Stream (they are the three tan/white books in the front of the photo). Honestly, this is a good place to start even before you begin gathering anything.

 

Wild Foods. If you are going to be looking for wild foods, I recommend Sam Thayer’s books: The Forager’s Harvest and Nature’s Garden. They are both available from his website (he self-published them, and they are the best foraging books I’ve ever read). I often have them with me out in the field and I study them when I’m not out and about.

 

General Plant ID. For flowers, there is a great and compact book called What’s Doing the Blooming? and its super useful for all manner of blooming plants (good for wild food, medicine, and even dye plants). Blooming plants are often fruiting plants later in the year, so you can identify them early in the season using this. Otherwise, any field guide with photos should be sufficient–there are some produced by the Arbor Day foundation on trees that are also useful.

 

Medicinal Plants. I took a four-season herbal intensive with Jim McDonald and that’s how I learned to ID many plants. I combined this with Matthew Wood’s two volumes, The Earthwise Herbal (vol 1 and 2). Usually if I need to find a specific plant, I’ll study it before I leave the house, locate it in one of my field guides, and then try to find it when I’m out.

Butterfly Weed / Pleurisy root - an awesome plant for medicine but also very needed by buttefly populations.  Harvest with care and only when in abundance.

Butterfly Weed / Pleurisy root – an awesome plant for medicine but also very needed by buttefly populations. Harvest with care and only when in abundance.

 

Dyes. There are numerous dye books and mushroom dye books that are also useful if you are going that route. Some that I like are: Dean and Cassleman’s Wild Color and Bessette and Bessette’s A Rainbow Beneath My Feet: A Mushroom Dyer’s Field Guide.

 

Native American food/medicine/craft books. Some native American books that cover medicinal or edibles are really useful in terms of recipes and information. I have a few out of print ones on my shelves, and they have taught me much about traditional uses (such as hemlock-hickory tea and how to make pemmican!)

 

Other crafts: What you are looking for is very dependent on the craft. Books on basketweaving and natural weaving will describe what to get for those crafts; pine-needle basketry will obviously be about pines, and so on.  Natural papermaking books will obviously teach you about what to gather for that (I have a few posts on natural papermaking as well). I haven’t found good books on foraging for incense supplies, but I do have some information on my blog here, here, here, and here about it. My post on smudge sticks perhaps is the most comprehensive in terms of wild plants you can burn that smell good (never fear! I am working on a much longer post on that subject in this upcoming year–still testing plants at this point!)

 

Foraging friend and example of gear

Foraging friend and example of gear

How to Build Knowledge

Only some of my knowledge on this subject came out of books. A lot of it came from learning from others–I walked at my grandfather’s side and later, my uncle’s side and they taught me much about plants as a child. Much later, I attended a full year of my friend Mark’s Eat Here Now” classes where he did a monthly plant walk at various locations. I attended several mushroom hunting workshops to learn the mushrooms (and would like to attend more). And of course, I attended my four-season herbal intensive (which included one day per month of plant walks out in the field).  I also went out with others who knew different kinds of things and we learned from each other. I talk to people about plants often–and am always ready to learn something new or teach someone else.

 

 I have found that focusing your energies on one area can lead you to success and allow you to, over time, build a very diverse set of knowledge about things you can wildcraft. Now, when I got into the woods, I am ready for anything–crafting supplies, dye plants, medicine, wild snacks, and treats, wood to carve, and much more. I focused my energies each year on learning a different set of things and adding to my repertoire–the first year, it was mainly art supplies and incense making–I gathered resins and found every berry I could and tested its dye and ink capacity. The second and third years, I focused on learning all of the wild foods I could and kept looking for dye plants and such. The fourth year, I focused on wild mushrooms and brewing, in addition to food and craft/dyes. Finally, this year, I added medicinal herbs (and will probably continue to focus on them for some time). I made it a point to go out into the field at least six times a month looking for what I was looking for and also paid attention to what was already growing at my homestead.

 

Its also a good idea to learn characteristics of plant families — the book called Botany For Gardeners, recommended to me by Karen (one of the frequent readers and commenters on this blog–thanks Karen!) can really be of assistance.  This way, you can begin to identify plant famillies and even if you find a plant you don’t know, its features will give you some clue as to other related plants.

 

Poison Hemlock (courtsey of Wikipedia)

Poison Hemlock (courtsey of Wikipedia)

A final point about building knowledge–one of the first things you should learn is what can cause you harm. I think first-time foragers should all learn to identify poison hemlock in ALL of its stages before anything else. Poison ivy gets a lot of notoriety, and frankly, can give you a bad rash and a few unpleasant weeks.  But Poison Hemlock WILL KILL YOU if ingested–and it has many look alikes in the Apiaceae family (such as Queen Anne’s lace/Wild carrot).  Even just touching or smelling Poison Hemlock can cause nausea, dizziness, and disorientation.  Recently, I was officiating at a friend’s wedding.  The bridal party were getting ready to pose for photos along a bridge on a trail.  I saw a huge patch of it right where people were standing and watched someone reaching down to touch it (it was pretty, in full bloom). I quickly pointed it out and had everyone move to give it the respect it was due.  Interestingly enough, a few months later, one of the people in the bridal party reached out to me to learn more about this plant and many others. Other plants I would learn quickly include the death angel/avenging angel mushroom, poison sumac, and poison oak. When you start looking for particular plants, also be aware of what plants may look similar to the plant you want ( a good foraging book, like Sam Thayer’s books, will teach you this).

 

What You can Wildcraft and Setting intentions

Truthfully, the better question is–what can’t you wildcraft? I’ve taken particular joy in learning as much as I can about as many plants as possible and their uses. For example, see my extended post on the dandelion. One of the things you want to ask yourself is–why are you wildcrafting? For medicine? For Food? For crafting?  This will determine, to a large extent, what you are looking for and what resources you will need.  You also want to consider the abundance of the plant and who else may be depending on the plant as a food source (more on this in Part II of this series).

 

Setting your intent: Wandering vs. Targeted Harvesting. Sometimes I go out wandering to see what I can find, while other times, I have a very specific harvest in mind. Determining this will indicate where I should go (e.g. a few days after a “weather event” to look for mushrooms; to the outskirts of a housing development to pick serviceberries, and so on). If I don’t have anything in mind, I will go to one of several wild areas and make it a point to return to the same area multiple points in the season to gauge how the crops are progressing.

 

When you are first learning, the other thing is that you might not know where to get certain things. These “wanderings” then, while time consuming, are wonderful times of discovery. They help you establish your “spots” for future harvests–look for abandoned apple orchards, berry patches, abundant fields, and so much more.

Nature's bounty - the crab apple!

Nature’s bounty – the crab apple!

 

Keeping records. I keep fairly detailed records of harvests and locations.  I know others who draw extensive maps so that they can find their mushrooms again the following year.  All of this is useful as you are learning–looking at your records from one year can help you figure out the locations and timing of where you want to go.

 

Wildcrafting Timing

Timing is a tricky thing in wildcrafting. Generally, the more often you go out, and the more time you devote, the more impressive harvests you will find. Each year can be its own wonky thing, and you can never be sure that the wild blueberries will be blooming at the same time (they, like everything else, can often vary by several weeks depending on the weather)  I find its better to visit early in the season and stop back often for things you really like than to miss the harvest entirely. For example, as I mentioned in my dandelion post, each year there is about 7-10 days of “peak dandelions” where they are blooming and abundant–and this is really the only time to make wine because its the only time they will be in the volume you need. If you miss the harvest–you’ll have to wait till the following season.

 

The other important thing about timing is that not everything is abundant each year. This is why we must take advantage of harvests when we find them and understand how to stretch those harvests out in times of scarcity. I remember, for example, the great apple harvest of 2013; the great st. john’s wort harvest of 2014, and the great berry harvest of 2011 and 2013 (and the lack of any berries to speak of in 2012 and 2014!)  Canning, drying, freezing, and other forms of preservation can allow us to enjoy the bounty even in years of famine.  A lot of people, as i mentioned in my earlier post, don’t really understand this. The supermarket is always abundant, and if you are going to share wild foods with them, I would suggest making them come with you on a trip or two so that they understand the work of it–and also the joy.

 

Stay tuned for my second post next week, where we’ll delve into understanding the ethics of foraging, discussing where to harvest safely, and more!

 

Reskilling for Sustainable Living: Ways to Learn New Skills December 27, 2014

Everyone, to some extent, is a product of their culture. Our culture’s formal education system teaches a set of skills that are claimed to be beneficial and practical for functioning in present society. Certain sets of skills are privileged, and others are simply not taught, and in some cases, skill sets that are deemed no longer relevant are lost from the collective knowledge of many communities and families. Unfortunately, many of the skills of the past that are needed to help us transition to a lower-carbon and lower-fossil fuel society have been lost as newer generations weren’t interested in learning them or because these skills are no longer part of any community or family educational system.  This is where the concept of reskilling can come in.

 

What is reskilling?

“Reskilling” is one of the terms that often comes up in the sustainability and permaculture communities. The concept of reskilling is simple–those of us wanting to get ahead of the curve and transition to low-fossil fuel, sustainable living, need broad sets of skills that aren’t typically taught in our education system nor are typically part of growing up in our present culture. Reskilling is really about gaining the skills to provide for our basic needs for ourselves, our families and our communities–the movement is concerned with skills that help feed ourselves, clothe ourselves, provide daily functional items for ourselves from local materials, entertain ourselves, deal with our waste, keel ourselves healthy, and keep ourselves sheltered and warm.  So we can think about reskilling as the process of gaining a set of skills for basic human life in a non-industralized or lower-fossil fuel setting–a setting that future generations and many of us today are heading toward. Typical reskilling may include a lot of the concepts discussed in this blog-natural building, homesteading, gardening, fermentation, herbalism, animal husbandry, candle making, and much more.

Animal Husbandry as an important skill

Animal Husbandry is an important skill

Why Reskill?

I think there are a lot of reasons people start reskilling, and I’ll give you a few of mine. Reskilling has been a really empowering thing for me for a few reasons. First,I found that each time I learn a new skill–from how to properly start seeds or rotate crops to how to deal with an egg-bound chicken or make my own medicines–I was stepping further away from modern industrial and consumerist society. This meant less dependence and financial support for practices/companies/lifestyles that I spiritually disagreed with.  Second, being able to provide some of my own needs, like food or medicine, also made me feel like I was doing something to face the problem directly rather than lamenting over what wasn’t being done by government, etc. Third, reskilling, while hard work, is fun and exciting–and has created a really fulfilling life full of activities and new interests.   Finally, reskilling allows people like me, who were heavily trained in a specialty, to adopt a more generalist mentality, and there is great benefit in such an approach.

 

Since my spiritual path is rooted in the living earth, I see reskilling not only as a sustainable practice, but as a sacred spiritual practice–the earth is honored, I live more sustainably, my needs are taken care of, I learn more about the land, and I live much closer to her rhythms and seasons.  This is a big part of my druidry, my sacred action.

 

Ok.  I’m sold on reskilling. What should I learn first?

I have found that it is important to learn one thing comfortably at a time–when you start trying to do to much, you risk frustrating yourself.  Start slow, read, talk to people, and find out what you are inspired to try.  Also find out what you can learn about in your area–who is around and willing to teach. One of the things you want to think about is if you want to specialize in one kind of skill extensively or learn a bit of everything. A typical community 150 years ago had certain activities that everyone did (e.g. the home cottage industry such as growing and preserving food, brewing, making home cheeses, churning butter, raising some chickens, etc) but then there were those that specialized, such as a blacksmith, wood carver, or herbalist.  You want to think about your interests and see where they develop.

Basket weaving as a sustainable skill

Basket weaving as a sustainable skill

 

How does one reskill?

There are many, many options for reskilling.  I think you’d be surprised the places and things that have things to teach you. It really depends to a large extent on what is in your area, how many like-minded people you have, and how you best learn.  The rest of this post presents ways you can reskill through multiple angles: history, firsthand learning,

 

History

History in its various forms have so much to teach us in terms of reskilling, becuase many skills we are learning when reskilling are skills of our past.  Here are three different kinds of histories that I’ve found are helpful to reskill.

 

1) Living Historical Events/Festivals: The Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) and other forms of reenactment (civil war, colonial, etc) offer one way to learn traditional skills. Some friends invited to me to their reenactment camp a few years ago, and I was really excited to see how many skills the reenactors were preserving and excited to teach. From these sources, I learned about soapmaking, weaving, spinning, flint knapping, blacksmithing, leatherworking, and more.  While these provided me with “glimpses”; I was able to be inspired, gain some basic instruction, and connect with others preserving these various skills.

 

2) Historical Villages. You can find various kinds of historical villages peppered around the country, and like the “living histories” above, there  There is a wonderful village called Old Bedford Village in Bedford, PA, where all sorts of old traditions are preserved–they have a full fledged print shop, an apothecary, a candlemaker, various woodworkers, a blacksmith, a potter, a tinsmith, and more.  Its an inspirational place and while there is limited hands on, you can learn a lot just studying the old tools and ways of living.  Even seeing a typical house in the colonial era (like where the hearth was placed, the cooking instruments, etc) gives me lots of ideas for reskilling.

 

7) Historical Study: Learning about your town’s and family’s local history serves as another theme for reskilling. Read family historical documents and journals, studyold maps, study what your town or city used to look like also give some hints as to life in centuries past–and the skills that people had.  If you are *really* lucky someone is still around who knows a lot about your town or your family and how people lived.

 

8) Historical shows. If you don’t have any access to the above, the other thing you might check out are a series of “living history” shows produced by the BBC.  These are shows such as “Victorian Farm,” “Edwardian Farm,” “Tudor Monastery Farm.” What I like about these shows is where historians live a year on the farm and practice all sorts of interesting skills.

 

Herbalism as a traditional skill

Herbalism as a traditional skill

Firsthand learning from others.

There is little substitute for learning firsthand.  Here are a few ways that one can learn:

 

1) Classes: Classes are a great way to learn many skills, and one of my preferred methods of reskilling. Since I started reskilling six years ago, I have taken all sorts of classes–natural building (round pole framing, rocket stoves), compost water heaters, rocket stoves, organic farming, winter organic farming, herbalism (year long), foraging, candlemaking, fermentation, mushroom foraging, livestock, and so much more.  These classes were found by reaching out to friends, looking to see what others were doing, and also looking on Local Harvest for classes there.

 

2) Apprenticeships: If you find someone who knows how to do something you really want to learn, consider asking to be their apprentice.  While this might be an old idea, its a really good one. Learning under someone who has a skill allows you to have a mentor, to aid them in their work, and to learn firsthand.  I can’t stress this enough.  I was lucky enough to serve as an organic farmer’s apprentice for a season, and there was no substitute for learning under her.

 

3) Friends: Friends may know all sorts of interesting things.  I learned how to make soap from two friends, and now already I’ve taught soapmaking to other friends.  Friends can learn different skills and then swap skills.  Learning a new skill with a friend is a wonderful experience!

 

4) Community Organizations : I’m lucky that in my area, we have a fantastic amount of organizations and groups that you can learn new skills from in my area. Everything from the Mother Earth News Faire (offered in three locations each year) to a more local events like Ann Arbor Reskilling and our own Oakland County Permaculture Meetup allows people to come together and share skills.  I should also say that if a community organization or group doesn’t exist–consider starting one–that’s what a group of friends and I did with our permaculture meetup, and its going on three years now and I’ve learned so much from everyone.

 

5) Reskilling Festivals: Reskilling festivals are becoming another great way to learn how to do various activities.  Some areas may have local reskilling fairs (there is one that takes place in Ann Arbor, Michigan, about an hour fro where I currently live, for example).  There are also national reskilling fairs, perhaps the most well known being the Mother Earth News Fair.  Keep an eye out–they may not call themselves “reskilling” fairs, but if you take a look at the program and see things on there you want to learn, go for it!

Fermentation is a great skill!

Fermentation is a great skill to learn on one’s own!

Learning On One’s Own

Sometimes its best to learn just by doing or trying things out on your own–especially if you want to learn something and can’t find any classes or anyone else doing anything.

 

1) Videos, Blogs, Websites and Forums: There is so much good knowledge to be found on the web–Youtube Videos, websites, forums and blogs. I am always amazed at the amount of knowledge freely available out there just to learn. One of my favorite forums to learn is the permies forum; I’ve learned a lot from reading and more when I ask questions.  How-to stuff on the web, I have found, is generally quite useful and often is vetted by people through comments and responses.

 

2) Books and Magazines: I have saved my favorite way of learning to reskill for last–books! I am especially drawn to books from the 1970’s, as they have a wealth of really good information, great graphics, humor, and wit. From building my own solar cooker to solar greenhouses to organic farming, there are wonderful books out there on literally any reskilling subject. I like to collect books during the year, and then in the dark winter months, hole up in my home near the fireplace with a few good books and get ideas for the coming season. I created a list of some of my favorite books for homesteading (there are so many more I have yet to list!)

 

Reskilling as a Way of Life

What began growing my own food and investigating sustainable practices, I had no idea where the journey would take me. I am so grateful for the people who I have had the pleasure of learning from, from the awesome books I’ve read, the people on the web who have shared their knowledge, and those who have inspired me. Reskilling has become a passion of mine and really, has changed the way I live and work and I am so glad to be on this path!

 

So You Want to Start a Homestead? Resources and Insights to Get You Started August 20, 2014

I’ve had a few people in the last few months ask me about starting a homestead or a small organic farm. A “homestead” or, if you are in the UK “smallholding” refers to a personal or family plot of land where food is grown, animals are tended, and the household economy encouraged (e.g. home crafts and food preservation) with the goal of increased resiliency and self-sufficiency. I thought I’d take the time today to talk about the resources and considerations one needs to do so using permaculture design principles and what I’ve learned from the 5 year process of converting my 3 acre piece of land into a small homestead. I’m also going to talk through what I learned and some of the mistakes that I’ve made in the hopes you don’t have to make the same ones.

Working on the homestead!

Working on the homestead!

 

Your Motivation for Homesteading

I think its important to recognize your motivation for homesteading or farming, up front.  For me, I am deeply motivated to live a more sustainable life and be more self sufficient because of a few reasons: 1) it aligns with my spiritual practices and life philosophy; 2) I feel like I need to be doing “something” and am unhappy with the lack of attention that many in my country pay to matters of long-term sustainability; and 3) It enriches my life and makes me feel more complete.  If you are unsure if this is a way of life you are interested in undertaking, I would suggest spending some time at a friend’s homestead, maybe WOOFing for a while, and getting a sense of what this life is like and if you would be well suited for it.  It does require a ton of knowledge, patience, hard work (manual labor), and constant attention.  But to me, the rewards are well worth it.

 

Understanding the Work of the Homestead

Most of us weren’t raised on farms.  We don’t really know what a full day’s labor really feels like.  If you are starting your own homestead or small organic farm, I think its important to discuss the work involved upfront.  The larger your homestead is, the more work you will need to do (e.g. a 2000 square foot garden is substantially more work than a 500 square foot one).  The more pieces you want to add (livestock, orchards, food preservation, farmer’s market/sales, organic gardens, herbs, a bigger garden each year, and so on) the more work you will need to do.  Just like the druid’s wheel of the year, however, a lot of work is concentrated into certain times of the year–if you live in an area like I do (Zone 6, South East Michigan), the harvest season till late fall represents the hardest work you will do for the year, but you also have substantial amounts of work in the spring in planting out and when the harvest starts to roll in.  If you aren’t sure about the work, go volunteer for a day on a farm or a small homestead and get a sense of what the work might be like.

 

Homesteading and Partnerships/Significant Others/Families

Homesteading is not really just a “fun passtime” but rather is a way of life, a way of seeing and interacting with the world.  And this way of life can bring people together, or it can tear them apart. If you are blessed enough to have a partner/family/significant other who is also on board and wants to homestead, then let the fun begin!  If you have someone in your life who is not on board…..I would carefully talk to them about your plans and see if you can come up with a shared vision where both of you can end up finding what you need and what fulfills you.  Do this before diving in head first with your homesteading plans.  If you continue to be met with resistance, recognize that homesteading and other sustainable activity transforms you in positive and powerful ways…which might not sit well with your partner. If your partner isn’t along for the ride, you might find yourself isolated and with increasing tension between you about your homesteading activities.  Unfortunately, I speak from personal experience…my sustainable living activities led to my divorce almost two years ago, where we did not share a worldview, and where doing this work alone caused a lot of isolation and tension in both of our lives.  I don’t regret my choices and I’m living the life I want to live, but that life has come at a substantial cost….and I think its important to understand that this kind of thing can happen. I do think, with the right kind of couple or family, homesteading could be an incredible way of bringing people together–I’ve seen its magic at work in the lives of a few of my friends.

Can you homestead alone? Yes, but it is not easy, and I honestly think it takes the right kind of person to do so well–a person that is strong, independent, knowledgeable, and enjoys hard labor and has enough free time to make it work.  There are certain things that I, as a single homesteader who also works a full-time job, simply can’t do.  I have to hire a good deal of work out, especially jobs for which I have no skills (construction), ask friends to come and help (like fence building or chicken coop construction), or find WOOFers to help.  If you are considering going it alone, I would strongly recommend instead finding partners/friends/family to join in on the homesteading fun.  Not just for a season, but on a more permanent basis–people come and go, and they can be fickle. See if you can find someone to do a land share, consider starting a small intentional community, or talk to other single friends and see if any others are interested in doing such work.

 

Trellised plants

Trellised plants

Activities Surrounding Homesteading

As a homesteader, there are so many activities you can engage in. The most common ones are growing food, growing herbs (medicinal and culinary), animal husbandry, orcharding, brewing, fermentation, canning food, drying food, root cellaring, soapmaking, candlemaking, medicine making, handcrafts, spinning, weaving, beekeeping, cooking, woodworking, hunting/fishing, and natural building. A good resource to see the kinds of activities that surround homsteading (other than this blog, obviously) is Mother Earth News magazine.  This list is not complete, but it gives you a sense of some of what homesteaders might engage in–and I have a lot more resources listed at the end of this post.  You shouldn’t take on too much at once–start by getting a few things in place that are important to you and then add activities slowly as you are able.

 

How much land do I need?

I would respond with, how much land do you have?  Homesteading can be done in surprisingly small spaces.  The Dervaes family is producing up to 6000 lbs of produce a year on a 66 x 132 foot urban lot in California; other homesteaders have 100’s of acres on which they work.  About six months ago, the UN released a report suggesting that the only way we were going to feed the world is by using small, organic farms–and you can produce a LOT of food in a very small space. Homesteads vary in size, and the less people you have, the smaller you want your operation to be.  Even if I had access to 30 acres, I wouldn’t be able to increase the size of my homestead at all right now because I only have so much time to do it.  I will say, however, that where you choose to homestead is important–you can run into trouble with neighbors and local governments depending on your setup.

 

Using Permaculture Design for Your Homestead

So you’ve made the decision to homestead, you realize it is going to be a lot of work, you have a plot of land, and you’ve thought about its impact on your relationships. Now you want to dive in and build a garden and get some chickens and maybe buy a big farm and….WAIT! Not so fast! I would STRONGLY suggest that before you start a homestead, you spend some time carefully planning and designing–both for the short term but also for the long term.

Start by spending some time reading about permaculture design and using these principles to create your dream homestead. A well-designed homestead, using the existing energy flows and producing no waste, will be a delight to enjoy, while if you kind of hodge podge things together, you might end up causing yourself more stress or work.  The homestead is a whole system, not just a smaller series of parts.  Seeing the homestead as a whole system changes the way you design it, the way you interact, and gives you vision and clarity about the process (I wish I had done more visioning earlier in my process here at my site!)  You want to think about what your site’s strengths and how you can use them effectively–do you have a pond? A lot of woodlands? A slope? Big open fields? An old orchard?

My favorite resource for learning about permaculture design (especially for those who are new to it) is a book called Gaia’s Garden: A Home-Scale Guide to Permaculture (Toby Hemenway). Another book that is a bit more advanced but is also really good is David Holmgren’s Permaculture Design: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability.  I’ll do another post sometime about how I used permauclture design in my homestead here–and you can find many, many examples online of how permaculture can be used to design an awesome homestead.

 

Making Jams

Making Jams

Organic Gardening/Farming

Permaculture design often uses perennials in the place of annuals to create food forests–but every permaculture designer I know also has a healthy sized vegetable garden.  And vegetable gardening is both an art and a science–I have found that I am always learning and growing each year as I work to grow as much of my own food as possible.   There are different approaches to soil preparation, crop rotation and planting, and such, so you want to read a few to get a good idea of what is out there. I’ve read 20+ books on vegetable gardening, and here are what I consider to be the staples that any new homesteader should read: 

  • How To Grow More Vegetables, 8th edition by John Jeavons.  This is an outstanding book and a wonderful introduction to “hardcore” vegetable gardening.  Jeavons provides excellent information on crop yields and how to calculate them, how to prep soil using double-dig approaches (I don’t use this method, but those who do swear by it), crop rotations, cover cropping, crop interplantings, and more.
  • The New Organic Grower: A Master’s Manual of Tools and Techniques for the Home and Market Gardener by Elliot Coleman. The soil is the most important part of your garden–with healthy soil, your plants do well, are resistant to pests, and are able to produce abundantly.  I think Coleman’s book is ideal because it spends a great deal of time talking about how to create healthy soil–and do so in an entirely sustainable method.  I learned more about soil preparation from this book–and a great deal of other wonderful things. Coleman is also a market gardener, so if you want to grow veggies to sell or start a CSA, that’s another thing this book is useful for.
  • The Winter Harvest Handbook by Elliot Coleman. If you are growing food in a cold climate, you want to buy this book and read it cover to cover.  I’ve adapted Coleman’s methods on a much smaller scale here using small movable hoop houses and have substantially extended my own harvest season.  This book teaches you how to use hoop houses and layers of protection, to grow the right varieties, to time your crops correctly, and much more.  Any serious homesteader needs to read this book!
  • The Resilient Gardener: Food Production and Self-Reliance in Uncertain Times.  By Carol Deppe.  I really like this book, because my own experience has found that I can’t depend on the weather to be consistent anymore–Deppe takes a very humorous and insightful approach to planting crops to achieve “resiliency.”  Her discussion about Native American food growing techniques, short-season crops, and varieties is well worth reading.
  • Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth.  Part of having a good garden is having good seed–planting heirloom seeds and saving seeds from season to season.  This book is a wonderful resource for saving seed and seed starting–I have found it invaluable in learning about how to make my garden more sustainable.

 

General Homesteading Books:

Books that help give you some insight into self reliant living and homesteading are quite abundant these days.  These are some of my favorites, books that give you a lot of good information and can be referred back to again and again.

  • The Self Sufficient Life and How to Live It by John Seymour.  This book is considered the Bible of homesteading and for good reason–it covers anything and everything you need to know about self sufficiency from growing food to brewing to basket weaving.  One of the top books on my list!
  • The Backyard Homestead: Produce All the Food You Need On Just 1/4 Acre! For those of you who want to homestead but don’t have a lot of space, I’d again refer you back to Gaia’s Garden: A Homescale Guide to Permaculture, but I’d also refer you to this book–its a delightful read and teaches you how to pack a great deal of gardening into a little space (Vertical Gardening by Derek Fell is another good choice if you find yourself in this circumstance).
  • Green Wizardry: Conservation, Solar Power, Organic Gardening and Other Hands-On Skills from the Appropriate Tech Toolkit by John Michael Greer.  JMG is one of my favorite authors for a number of reasons, and his Green Wizardry book is an outstanding introduction to many basic activities that  homestead could use such as solar greenhouses and gardening.
  • Mother Earth News magazine (as previously mentioned above). It is a wealth of inspiration on chickens, canning, vegetable varieties to grow, simple living, and more.  They also offer two Mother Earth News fairs!
  • One Straw Revolution: An Introduction to Natural Farming by Masanobu Fukouka .  Another classic text about farming and agriculture, this book is a fantastic read.

Food and Food Preservation:

If you are going to grow all of that food, preservation becomes a serious challenge! Here are some books to get you started in food preservation:

  • Root Cellaring: Natural Cold Storage for Fruits and Vegetables by Mike Bubel.  This book is an awesome introduction to the root cellar–it has plans, talks about what varieties are “keepers” (meaning they store well) and how to store all those lovely fruits and veggies from your homestead.
  • Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods.  by Sandor Katz and Sally Fallon.  Fermentation is an art and one that a homesteader should know.  This book is the best fermentation book out there.
  • The Ball Complete Book of Home Preservation by Judi Kingry and Lauren Devine.  This book teaches you how to can pretty much anything and the recipes are really good.  The one thing I will say though is that this book assumes normal pectin and normal sugar amounts (up to 50%) for fruits and fruit preserves.  I have found that another book (listed next) is better with a special pectin, so you can cut the sugar way down.
  • Preserving with Pomona’s Pectin: The Revolutionary Low-Sugar, High Flavor Method for Crafting and Canning Jams by Allison Carroll Duffy. For jams and jellies, use this book instead–your blood sugar will thank you
  • Nurturing Traditions by Sally Fallon.  This is a cookbook that fits very well with a homesteader’s life (especially one that includes animals).
  • Full Moon Feast: Food and the Hunger Connection by Jessica Prentice.  This is another cookbook, and one that helps you get in line with the seasonal cycles.  Highly recommended!
Use many resources already on the homestead!

Use many resources already on the homestead!

Miscellaneous

There are obviously a lot of other books that one can read regarding a homestead.  I’ll list a few of my favorites here–and I have a lot more that I could add to the list!

  • Natural Beekeeping: Organic Approaches to Modern Apiculture, 2nd edition by Ross Conard and Gary Paul Nabhan.  I’ve read about 10 beekeeping books, and this is the one I like the most because Conrad and Nabhan argue that we are in partnership with the bees and that the partnership requires us to treat them with respect.  It is full of a wealth of knowledge about how to start your hives and keep them going!
  • Build Your Own Earth Oven: A Low-Cost Wood-Fired Mud Oven, Simple Sourdough Bread, Perfect Loaves by Kiko Denzer, Hannah Field, and Alan Scott.  Because what homestead wouldn’t be complete without an outdoor kitchen and amazing earth oven?
  • The Soapmakers Companion: A Comprehensive Guide with Recipes, Techniques, and Know-How by Susan Miller Cavitch.  Great if you want to learn how to make some of your own soaps!
  • Home Cheese Making: Recipes for 75 Homemade Cheeses by Ricki Carroll.  The classic cheesemaking book!
  • The Holistic Orchard: Tree Fruits and Berries the Biological Way by Michael Phillips.  I don’t have extensive orchards here, but friends who do swear by this book.  If you are going an orcharding or berry bush route, you want to pick this up and give it a read!

Inspirational Reading:

My last list is more of inspirational reading, things to get you thinking and excited about living a more sustainable life through homesteading.  Some of these are very directly tied to homesteading, others give us philosophies and ways of interacting with nature.

  • Mystery Teachings from the Living Earth: An Introduction to Spiritual Ecology by John Michael Greer.  Another fantastic book by JMG, this one gives a set of seven laws that can help shift perspectives and live more attuned to the land.
  • Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture by Wendell Berry.  This book blew my mind…in fact, it is so amazing, that I am still reading it, two years later.  I read about a page at a time, wait a week, dwell on it, and keep reading.  Berry is brilliant, and anything you read by him will be worth your time. This book, written in the 1970’s, really shows what happened to agriculture and to all of America because of it, and provides some alternative perspectives.
  • Speaking of the 1970’s, go to old bookstores, and pick up anything you can find on sustainable living from the 1970’s – old Foxfire books, solar cookers/ovens, intentional communities, you name it, you will find it and be glad that you did.

I have a lot more I can suggest, but this list and these suggestions are certainly enough to get you started!  I hope this information is helpful to anyone who is looking to start their own homestead.  Readers, if there are books or resources that I missed that should be on here, please comment and I can add them to the list!